Editors' ChoiceNeuroscience

When Fat Gets on Your Nerves

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Science Translational Medicine  25 Jan 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 118, pp. 118ec13
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003733

The numbness and weakness that results from peripheral nerve injury can have a devastating effect on quality of life. So, strategies to shield nerves from injury or facilitate their regeneration are important. Now, Gladman et al. have found that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and other dietary sources, may offer one such strategy. These fats can reduce inflammation, enhance neurite outgrowth on neurons, and confer a neuroprotective effect after spinal cord injury. The new results reveal that in high concentrations, omega-3s protect neurons from injury in culture and may promote recovery from peripheral nerve injury in animals.

Gladman and colleagues developed a transgenic mouse that expresses the fat-1 gene of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This gene leads to the conversion of omega-6 fatty acids (the bad ones found in fast food) into omega-3 fatty acids (the good ones from salmon). As a result, these transgenic mice had increased concentrations of omega-3 and decreased concentrations of omega-6 in neurons of the dorsal root ganglia and spinal cord. Neurons cultured from these fat-1 transgenic mice were more resistant to both stretch- and hypoxic-injury in vitro than were neurons from wild-type controls. Furthermore, more omega-3 was associated with increased neurite outgrowth in neurons, a process that is likely important for recovery from injury. In living mice with sciatic nerve injury, the presence of the fat-1 gene was associated with improved functional recovery, although mice with and without fat-1 were both significantly impaired. Biochemical markers also suggested that the omega-3 fatty acids were neuroprotective, and muscle fibers, which degenerate after peripheral nerve injury, fared better after sciatic nerve injury in mice with more omega-3 fatty acids.

The work of Gladman et al. suggests that omega-3 fatty acids might be beneficial for peripheral nerve injury. A key question that remains is to what extent omega-3s prevent neural injury or promote neural recovery. If omega-3s are found to facilitate regeneration, then this readily available dietary compound could become an important therapeutic adjunct in patients with existing peripheral nerve injury.

S. J. Gladman et al., Improved outcome after peripheral nerve injury in mice with increased levels of endogenous omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. J. Neurosci. 32, 563–571 (2012). [PubMed]

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